December 6th marks St. Nicholas’ Day – the feast of the saint who we all know and love as Santa Claus. St. Nicholas’ Day is widely celebrated throughout Europe as a Christian festival, with particular regard to his reputation as a bringer of gifts.
Many people also attend Mass, and in Germany and Poland, boys traditionally dress as bishops and beg for alms for the poor. In some countries, children hang their stockings on Dec. 5 and empty them out their the next morning to find small toys and sweets.
What is known about the old St. Nicholas is a mix of fact and legend, but Nicholas is a popular saint because of his association with Christmas. In fact, even the historical Nicholas is something of a legend as there is no known historical document that proves his existence. He was reputedly born in Lycia to wealthy parents and became Bishop of Myra (located in Turkey) in the fourth century.
During the Roman emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, Nicholas was allegedly imprisoned and later released by the emperor Constantine (who gave his name to Constantinople, which is now called Istanbul).
Nicholas attended the first Council of Nicea in 325 AD, which supposedly led to a second arrest when he became angry at the heretic Arius, who denied the two natures of Christ – that Jesus was both God and man. Nicholas is said to have punched Arius, which landed him some prison time; hardly befitting of his role later in life as jolly Saint Nick!
After his release from prison, Nicholas supposedly renounced his wealth and generously gave to the poor. Great devotion to the saint spread throughout Europe until the Protestant Reformation, where it disappeared, except in Holland, where Nicholas was known by the Dutch variation of his name: Sinterklaas. It was then that his story began to take off, and he began to become known as Santa Claus.
Sometime around the Industrial Revolution, Saint Nicholas realised that the world’s population was growing at an alarming rate, and that poverty was rife throughout cities and towns. Eventually, he felt that the best way to help all the poor children around the world was to provide them with a big celebration at the end of the year, which is why Santa Claus now visits on Christmas every year.
Of course, legend has it that another Saint Nicholas is buried in Newtown Jerpoint in Kilkenny some 800 years ago. Originally said to have been buried in Italy in 1169, it is said to have been subsequently taken to Ireland by Nicholas de Frainet, a distant relative. But of course, we all know that a workshop in Lapland is where we’ll find the original Saint Nicholas most of the year!